In his pivotal book, Conditioning for Dance, Erik Franklin highlights the principle of progressive overload as a cornerstone of any dancer's fitness regimen. This is defined as increasing the intensity, volume, and/or frequency of exercises over time to match the dancer's strength and conditioning gains. But how do muscles actually change? Furthermore, the nearly-universal concern among dancers and athletes is 'how can a dancer increase her strength and endurance without gaining excessive muscle mass?' This feat of the dancer's body has everything to do with the nervous system and its amazing ability to adapt to stress. Read on!
Neurogenic versus Myogenic Change
Franklin explains that the effect of progressive overload is, essentially, a massive re-organization effort by the nervous system to optimize a muscle's ability to overcome resistance and stress. "Strength training helps to improve the coordination within and among the muscles." This type of change is called neurogenic . Strength training forces the nervous system to better control muscles, as individual fibers are activated with greater precision and coordination between every single joint and muscle is improved!
Strength training at or near maximum intensities over long periods of time may also result in myogenic change, where the protein structure of the muscle changes. Myogenic change means inceased muscle mass. However, note that "maximum intensities" are likely to result in lesser quality of execution - and for dancers, quality and aesthetic perfection is key. Therefore, focusing consistently on high-quality execution - as if conditioning were itself a dance - can prevent the extreme level of overload that would result in myogenic change.
An intelligently-designed dance conditioning regimen results in a thinner, leaner, and more toned body. Muscles become thinner and longer in order to speed up the recovery of nutrients to themselves. They become stronger because of neurological adaptation and increased coordination at the individual fiber level. It is our body's own internal logistical adaptation mechanism - and what a relief for dancers! Always keep in mind that the principles of quality over quantity, specificity in conditioning and leveraging mind-body connections are critical to achieving every benefit of neurogenic change, while avoiding excessive myogenic change in the dancer's body.